In January 1788, when British naval officer Arthur Phillip established the first penal settlement at Port Jackson in Australia, the continent consisted of approximately one million Aboriginal people, who traced their existence there for about 50,000 years. With Governor Phillip making his first colonial incursion along the eastern coast in what went on to be named Sydney, he brought with him epidemics, massacres, forced integration, alcoholism, and a lot more that wiped out large populations of Aboriginal people.
Since then, the settlers and Aboriginals in Australia have shared a complicated relationship. At present, Aboriginals make up just about three percent of Australia’s population. Their struggle to retain and acquire recognition for their unique heritage, languages, and religious practices, is frequently met with roadblocks.
Earlier this year, when a sacred site in western Australia was destroyed by mining company Rio Tinto, the complicated settler-Aboriginal relationship came to the forefront yet again. The Jukaan Gorge that was blasted in May is known to have contained archaeological remnants showing 46,000 years of continuous occupation. Most significant among these was a length of plaited human hair that was found to belong to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people who are still living in Australia.
Following widespread public outcry and international coverage, the chief executive of Rio Tinto, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, and two other senior executives resigned from the company earlier this month. The resignation has been applauded by senior archaeologists and historians in Australia who believe it demonstrates the value that investors at Rio Tinto place on Aboriginal heritage.
The incident though has sparked conversations around the disappearing heritage of Aboriginal Australians and the loopholes in the government’s efforts at recognising their rights.
Aboriginal Australians, the earliest humans on earth outside Africa
The term ‘Aboriginal’ has been applied to refer to the earliest inhabitants of Australia for only about 200 years. At present they exist as 250 disparate language groups, connected together through a common genetic link. Recent genetic studies have revealed that Aboriginal Australians could well be the oldest humans on earth outside of Africa.
A 2011 study published in the journal ‘Science’ revealed that ancestors of Australian Aboriginals migrated out from Africa approximately 75,000 years ago. The study established that Aboriginals in Australia are one of the oldest living humans in the world, and certainly the oldest ones outside Africa. Another study published in the journal Nature in 2017, based on genetic data acquired from 111 Aboriginals belonging to three groups, suggested that all Aboriginal Australians are related to a common ancestor who emerged in the continent about 50,000 years ago.
Many Anthropologists note that Australian Aboriginal art, culture, and religion is the most enduring kind on earth. Archaeologist Claire Smith in her book, ‘Country, kin and culture: Survival of an Australian Aboriginal community’ wrote how Aboriginals in Australia created “some of the most complex and refined social structures in the world.”
The religio-cultural view of Aboriginals is referred to as ‘the Dreamtime’. It is based on the belief that the world was inhabited by ancestors who had supernatural abilities. “Within the indigenous Australian cosmos, power flows from inherently powerful ancestral beings to the land, which is imbued with a potency given to it by the actions of people and ancestors in the past,” wrote Smith. In this way, land and every aspect of landscape among the Aboriginal Australians is imbued with ancestral associations and ascribed with social identity.
European contact with Aboriginals: From occupation to empowerment
When the British began settling in Australia, close to a million Aboriginals were known to have existed. The British policy of occupation in Australia was based on the concept of ‘terra nullius’. The Latin phrase translates as land with no people. The colonisers did not understand the complex socio-cultural systems of the Aboriginals, and thereby failed to recognise the relationship they shared with their land.
The doctrine underpinned the legal basis for stripping Aboriginals of their land rights. “The British followed the conventions adopted by European nations over the previous two centuries for legally acquiring unowned land,” wrote archaeologist Josephine Flood in her book, ‘The original Australians: Story of the Aboriginal people.’ She added that “since there was no sign of any chiefs or private land ownership, the claim that Australia was common land was not as unreasonable as then as it may seem to us now.”
As the British started expanding settlements across Australia the Aboriginal population kept showing a sharp decline. Anthropologist John Harris in his article, ‘Hiding the bodies: the myth of the humane colonisation of Aboriginal Australia’, noted that “by the 1920s, census figures indicate that only about 58,000 ‘full-blood’ Aboriginal people survived in Australia.” Apart from disease and hunger, Harris explained the important role that violent massacres played in the decimation of this population.
By the 1870s, all fertile land in Australia had been appropriated, and most Aboriginals lived an impoverished existence on the margins of European settlements.
Between 1910 and 1970s, a policy of ‘assimilation’ was applied in the continent, whereby it was understood that Aboriginal people should either be allowed to die out through a process of natural elimination or, wherever possible, assimilated into the white community. A report furnished by the Australian human rights commission in 1996 noted that close to 33 per cent Aboriginal children are known to have been removed from their homes and put in adoptive families. They were taught to reject their indigenous heritage, forbidden from speaking their traditional languages, in the hope that they would adopt white culture. Recent research has shown the devastating impact the policy had, not only on the mental wellbeing of the ‘stolen generations’, but also on the culture and heritage of the Aboriginals, which is almost at the verge of being extinct.
Eventually, in the 1950s and 60s, the concept of a multi-racial society in Australia emerged that replaced the policy of assimilation with that of integration and Aboriginal empowerment. “Integration is still the Australian government policy, for it enables indigenous people to retain their identity in a pluralist society,” wrote Flood in her book. She added how in the mid 20th century, “various new Aboriginal organisations sought revival of separate cultural identity but also full equality, civil rights and integration.”
“Major legislative restrictions discriminating against Aboriginal people on the basis of race was erased from the legislation of Australian states and territories during 1964,” Smith wrote.
Instrumental in this regard was the 1967 referendum that allowed the Commonwealth government to make special laws for Aboriginals, and also ensured that they were counted in the census. For the first time, Aboriginals were seen as Australian citizens and given equal rights under the law.
A radical change took place when in 1972 the federal government created a commonwealth department of Aboriginal affairs. “During this period, the focus changed from the care and protection of Aboriginal people to acceptance of their right to manage their own affairs,” wrote Smith. Land rights were a critical component in this regard, supported at the federal level by both the labour and liberal government.
In the ensuing decades, several land rights legislations were passed by the Australian government with the objective of restoring traditional land to Aboriginal people and restricting mining and other development activities in them. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976, the Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972, The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Heritage Protection Act of 1984 and the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act (Sacred Sites Act) 1989 were important laws created in this regard.
In the past couple of decades, the Australian government has on several occasions maintained the need to acknowledge the crimes committed by European settlers in the past, in order to create healthier relations with Aboriginals. In 1996, for instance, Governor General Sir William Deane stated: “It should, I think, be apparent to all well-meaning people that true reconciliation between the Australian nation and its indigenous peoples is not achievable in the absence of acknowledgment by the nation of the wrongfulness of the past dispossession, oppression and degradation of the Aboriginal peoples.”
“The present plight, in terms of health, employment, education, living conditions and self esteem, of so many Aborigines must be acknowledged as largely flowing from what happened in the past.”
A decade later, in 2008, prime minister Kevin Rudd delivered a formal apology to the Aboriginals at the Australian parliament for the stolen generations, or what he called “this blemished chapter in our nation’s history’. He stated, “The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia’s history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future…..A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.”
The Aboriginal battle for recognition continues
Despite the many instances of administrative commitment towards Aboriginal rights, they continue to battle with astonishingly high levels of unemployment, poor incomes, alcoholism, disease, as well as low life expectancy. Subsequently, the Aboriginals continue to fight for their land rights and cultural heritage.
The blasting of Jukaan Gorge by Rio Tinto is a case in point as to how ineffective land rights legislations have been. Rio Tinto had received ministerial consent to destroy the site in 1972, under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972 which allows the minister to give irreversible consent to land users to destroy sites of cultural significance. Following public outrage, the Act is now under Ben Wyatt, who is the Aboriginal affairs minister from Western Australia.
Section 18 of the Act has in fact been the cause behind the destruction of several other Aboriginal sacred sites with immense archaeological value. A report published in The Guardian in August this year noted that “more than 100 Aboriginal sites in Western Australia – some of which date before the last ice age – could be destroyed by mining companies which have already obtained legal permission to do so.” These include Tharbadu or Djadjiling (Mount Robinson) that contains between 40 and 86 sites significant to the Banjima people and Weelamura, which contains sites more than 60,000 years old. The same report also mentions that in the last 10 years, mining companies have been granted permission to damage 463 sites.
“Usually, Aboriginal people have to consent to the destruction of major sites. These Agreements often have a clause that stops Aboriginal people from objecting to proposed development,” wrote Smith in an email interview with Indianexpress.com, explaining the loopholes that are exploited by corporates to exploit Aboriginal rights over their land.
She explained that though resource companies try to avoid sacred sites, there are many other problems. “Sometimes one group may know that a site is sacred but others may not, and if people talk to the people who don’t know that it is sacred, they may get approval to destroy the site. Sometimes, Aboriginal people may not wish to identify an area as they want to protect it by keeping it secret. Also, sometimes sites are destroyed inadvertently. For example, there may be a GPS site location recorded but it may not be physically identified for protection in the landscape,” she added.
Most importantly though, she maintained that the “Australian government is short-sighted in its commitment towards Aboriginal rights.” “Sometimes traditional owners will object, but the government will still give approval based on what it feels is good business,” she said.
Speaking about what needs to be done to protect Aboriginal land rights Smith said, “The legislation to protect sacred sites needs to be stronger with Aboriginal sign-off mandatory and Aboriginal people free to deny consent.” She added: “The lack of legal and archaeological representation on the side of Aboriginal Corporations that allows for informed consent has been the major issue. Aboriginal groups have been ‘consenting’ without really knowing what they’re consenting to.”
The orginal Australians: Story of the Aboriginal people by Josephine Flood
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